The Butterfly Bush

Posted on 05/12/11

The Butterfly Bush, commonly known as summer lilac and botanically as Buddleia, is one of my backyard favorites.  Curious about its origin, I learned this…

The name ‘buddleia’ is after the Rev. Adam Buddle, a rector in Essex, England.  There was a long tradition in England associating botanists and gardens with the clergy.  Gilbert White, Canon H. N. Ellacombe, Charles Kinglsey, and William Wilks are only a few of the better known horticultural clerics.  Clergymen were often isolated in small villages, leading quiet, leisurely lives and could satisfy their intellectual curiosity, as well as use their classical educations, with botanical research.  They believed that to study plants would bring them closer to understanding God’s universe, and the innocence of Eden.  As Charles Kingsley, who wrote The Water Babies, afffirmed, “All natural objects … all forms, colours and scents … are types of some spiritual truth or existence.”

In 1708, Buddle wrote an Herbarium of British plants, supporting the botanical systems of John Ray and Joseph de Tournefort.  He was an authority on mosses, but that did not deter Linnaeus from giving his name to the shrub, Buddleia globosa, which was introduced from Peru in 1774.  It isn’t tough enough to survive New England winters, but its globular golden flowers are very attractive and it is found in older English gardens.  The hardy buddleias, introduced later from Asia, are widely grown in Britain and North America.

The most popular buddleia, Buddleia davidii, was called after Pere Armand David, a Jesuit missionary who explored in China, though it was actually discovered by Pere Jean Andre Soulie.  It was sent to Kew in 1887 by Dr. Augustine Henry, an Irish customs officer in Shangai and the assistant medical officer at Ichang.  He was, in advance of his time, worried about air purity and deforestation, and described the Chinese hillsides, denuded of trees, “for all the world like a nightmare dream of telegraph poles gone made and having a mass meeting.”  When he returned home he became a professor of forestry at Dublin until his death in 1930.

The buddleias with their lilac-like flowers are particularly popular these days because they attract butterflies, sometimes so sucessfully that the bush looks as if it were flowering with butterfles, attached by their heads, crazily drinking the sweet nectar, their petally wings fluttering from the branches.  It’s a wonderful sight and surely we must, like Adam Buddle, be reminded by it of the infinite mystery of the universe.


from 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names by Diana Wells